College Writing II
"Genetically Editing Embryos"
Imagine a world with only the most “perfect” humans. Would each one be perfectly healthy and extremely intelligent? Would they all look alike, with the same-colored eyes and identical physical features? Designing “perfect” humans sounds like something from a futuristic, sci-fi movie, but the potential of genetic engineering is being explored and developed right now more than it ever has been. The possibility of being able to pick and choose certain genes for human embryos sounds incredible, but it is also incredibly risky. One mutation is all it would take to genetically ruin a whole bloodline of future generations because when genes in germline cells are edited, the edits become inheritable. While the science may say there is a minimal chance of a mistake occurring, this practice has also been used in unethical ways before such as when a Chinese scientist edited the genes of two baby girls in secrecy without the proper permission and failed to address an unmet medical need. Genetic modification has already been used to a certain extent in the world today in plants and foods, but genetically editing an unborn child is simply taking it a step too far. Genetically editing embryos before they are born is too dangerous with the associated medical risks and the unknown effects for the future generations, and it needs to be more tightly regulated worldwide so it cannot be used unethically.
To begin, gene editing is a technology that has been relatively new to working in human cells, and it can either be used in somatic cell editing or germline genome editing. The main difference between somatic cells and germline cells is that gene edits made in germline cells are inheritable. Somatic cells are the “ordinary cells, such as those in specific organs in the eye” and when these cells are edited, the changes only affect the patient who is choosing to have these edits done (Gorvett). Germline genome editing is different in the way that it makes changes to germline cells, which are cells that “give rise to egg or sperm cells” and it edits embryonic cells, which are cells in the embryo that give rise to reproductive cells (Kannan). Anytime the term “germline” gene editing is used, the editing of germ cells or embryonic cells is meant, and this also refers to inheritable edits. This means that the changes made in germline genome editing, because they can be passed on, have effects on a much larger scale than somatic cell editing. Furthermore, CRISPR (Clusters of Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is used to execute this gene editing and is a technology that allows scientists to go edit sequences of DNA to ultimately change gene function by targeting certain genes. Once a gene is targeted, the technology can cut out certain DNA segments, or even add in a whole new gene (Gorvett). The CRISPR technology is one that is revolutionary for medical use and is of interest when looking at curing diseases, but it is also still being explored to see how effective it can be in human cells. CRISPR is the type of genetic editing that will be focused on here, and if it should be used on germline cells in embryos will be considered.
Genetically modifying human embryos is dangerous because of the various medical risks, and the gene editing technology still has uncertainties associated with its effectiveness and ability to cause unwanted effects in the germline cells. In a laboratory in southern China, donated sperm and egg cells were used to practice gene editing using CRISPR-Cas9, essentially to see if these sex cells could be successfully edited and if the edits could work in an embryonic cell. The sperm were donated by a man with a gene mutation that causes blindness, and so the goal of the study was to try and fix this mutation in the embryos at various stages after fertilization. The biologist who led the study said, “what we found is that instead of the mutation being fixed, the chromosome carrying the mutation is gone” and that the deletion of a chromosome like this “dooms the embryo” (Marchione). Trading one mutation for an entire chromosome deletion is not a good trade. Chromosome deletions often result in an individual having a disorder that causes reduced intellectual and physical ability. To take a chance at causing a more severe disorder like a chromosomal deletion rather than leaving the mutation for blindness that was there alone is a chance that should not be taken. At least right now, using this technology on human embryos is not worth the risks at hand with potential off-target effects, and it needs to be studied more before it can be a viable option to perform on a human life. The associated medical risks seen in this trial show how much is still unknown about CRISPR and that editing an embryo without more confidence in this technology is dangerous.
Editing an embryo’s genes has its risks for the individual, but on a grander scale, the edits are inheritable and can pose detrimental effects on future generations. Say, if an artificial mistake was imposed on a gene, this mistake would have to be silenced by genetic variation for it to not have a big impact on the individual, or the mistake would be expressed. If the mutation only needs one copy of the gene to be expressed, meaning it is dominant, then there is a good chance the mutation will live on and continue to be expressed in that embryo. There was an interesting case where a woman who was a carrier for Huntington’s disease moved to a small village in Venezuela in the 19th century and ended up passing the disease onto “more than 10 generations of descendants- encompassing more than 14,761 living people, as of 2004” (Gorvett). Huntington’s disease, as stated by Gorvett, is “a harrowing condition which gradually stops the brain from working normally, eventually causing death” and is rare in the case that “even if you still have one healthy copy of the gene you will develop it.” This woman essentially was the founder for the disease in this village’s population, showing how powerful one copy of a gene may be. If a disease like Huntington’s disease were to be created by the gene editing technology, the effects would be dangerous to not only one person, but their family in the future. Small mistakes can have long-lasting effects and be passed onto many people because they are affecting human reproductive cells when an embryo is edited. Therefore, gene editing is far too risky if not executed perfectly.
Along the same lines as the gene editing causing unknown effects on future generations, it also dangerously affects the way of natural evolution of genes over time. CRISPR gene editing is essentially a way of “inserting ourselves into evolution,” which means that society can use it to decide which genes are good or bad and interfere with the genetic lottery which has been present since the beginning of time (Kozubek). The reality is that there are no superior genes, meaning that no gene can be defined as good or bad in the biological sense. This is because overtime, humans do not evolve toward perfection by any means; instead, humans have all their genes because they were not selected against as humans evolved. The environment dictates which genes survive and which die out. Gene editing can damage this natural evolution that has been ever-present, and it can be dangerous if the editing could potentially create a problem for the embryo’s future and the future genetic makeup of others. Another more specific point Kozubek mentions is that ultimately even scientists cannot define genes as “good or bad” because the full extent of every single gene in the body is still not known and needs to be researched. Though, it has been found that people with weaker immune systems have a decreased risk of cancer and neuropathic disorders, so if a genetic alteration was made to the immune system genes, there would be a tradeoff with these other, beneficial genes. In other words, if a weaker gene were to be fixed with genetic editing, but then it was learned that the weaker gene was providing the body with resistance to another disease, this would not be fixing the problem at all. It would simply be trading one disease for another. The effects would then be irreversible and be passed down to the next generation. The technology is overall a way of interfering with the way humans have been evolving for millions of years and is dangerous because of how unchangeable the effects will be for future generations if a mistake is made.
Gene editing will clearly have effects on future descendants genetically and on humans in an evolutionary sense, and it will also affect societal values. Christiansen considers the idea that gene editing can alter societal norms; specifically, if it can cause people to be less accepting of those with genetic conditions or if parents will no longer “have the courage to bring children into the world if they are considered less than perfect.” This assumes that gene editing technology will soon be accessible to anyone. It will put a great amount of pressure on people’s own life choices and cultural values, causing a societal shift in the way we view others. This brings up the idea of eugenics, defined as the study of how to increase the prevalence of desired inheritable characteristics to improve humans (Christiansen). It basically involves deciding what a desirable human genetic makeup looks like, and then allowing the technology to enhance the genes to make the desired traits a reality. As stated previously, there are no good or bad genes in a biological sense, but society tends to label certain things as good or bad. Making edits to enhance genes just because it is possible should never be an option, and hence there needs to be more regulations on what this genetic editing can and cannot be used for.
Any technology can really be taken and used an immoral way, and this is something that needs to be investigated with genetically editing embryos. The gene editing becomes dangerous and even unethical if it is used in a way that is not highly regulated. Unfortunately, CRISPR has already been used unethically by a scientist named He Jiankui in China in 2017. He tried to edit twin embryo girls’ CCR5 gene with the goal of giving them resistance to HIV to basically improve their genes. Although, the scientist ended up giving them a new, unseen-before CCR5 gene, and it is unknown how this will affect their health. The girls must be monitored closely by their doctors, which is no way to live. He also failed to get proof of informed consent from the girls’ parents while operating under forged signatures at the hospital (Yong). This scientist was able to get away with this because of the loose regulations surrounding the technology and because gene editing was not legally restricted or banned. He indeed went to jail for taking “shortcuts” and not receiving the proper approval, but he should not have gotten away with this in a hospital the way he did. There was said to be precautions taken with the gene editing in China at the time, but precautions are not enough to prevent this from possibly happening again (Yong). The scientist’s actions were unethical in various ways, and tighter regulations needed to be in place. As of 2020, some regulations have been established for germline editing, but it is far from being tightly regulated worldwide as it should be. The United States has prohibited funded research on embryos, but it is allowed privately. Australia requires a license for research on embryos, China only requires approval from the hospital where the research/ editing is to be done, and both Japan and Russia have no regulations surrounding gene editing (Kannan). When there is no fine line defining what CRISPR can and cannot be used for, it becomes dangerous and scientists with bad intentions will find a way to perform the editing on their own terms. This is exactly how the scientist in China got away with creating the first two genetically edited baby girls. Gene editing is not regulated strictly enough worldwide, and this needs to change so an embryo cannot be modified unethically.
One might object that genetically editing embryos can cure diseases, nonetheless, improving someone’s quality of life. While it is true that germline editing can someday be great for genetically ridding an embryo of a life-threatening disease, this day is not now, not while the laws surrounding genetic editing are still so vague (Hammerstein). If only the benefits of the technology are looked at but the medical risks, unknown effects, and most importantly the lack of regulations are overlooked, genetic editing has the possibility to dangerously crash and burn. There are a multitude of rules that need to be established, one being a better means of informed consent. The one problem with He Jiankui’s experiments in China was that the parents of the embryos never knew exactly what they were allowing the scientist to do (Kannan). In this way, it needs to be sure that the parents of the embryo are fully informed and educated by the scientific community on how the technology will work and of any risks involved before they give consent. Additionally, a line needs to be established between what is considered an unmet medical need and what is a genetical enhancement when considering if gene editing is the right option for the embryo. Meaning, it needs to be restricted in the way that gene editing can only be done if it is in the best interest of the health of the child, not just because the possibility for “improvement” exists. As of now, there is no rule that defines that germline gene editing should not be used for non-medical enhancements. If it is for some reason assumed that the doctor using the technology will use it in the embryo’s best medical interest 100% of the time, this needs to be rethought. The technology cannot be guaranteed to be used morally without more standards in place.
In essence, genetically editing embryos before they are born is too dangerous with the associated medical risks and the unknown effects for the future generations, and it needs to be more tightly regulated worldwide so it cannot be used unethically. The effective performance of the technology is not guaranteed, which could result in off-target effects. Those who come after this individual will be affected genetically, societal values may shift, and with the lasting effects, the natural pattern of evolution could be changed indefinitely. The technology should not be able to be taken advantage of either, so making enhancements on embryos for no good medical reason should be established as unacceptable with tighter regulations globally. Now, think back and imagine the world with these “perfect” humans. It is now generations later, after it was believed that eliminating all the bad genes and inserting artificial genes was going to propel humans toward an endpoint of flawlessness in the human genome. But instead, looking around, all these humans are the opposite of perfect. These people are ridden with unimaginable diseases in their family heritage and have ruined the natural way of the genetic lottery, all because they could not wait to get their hands on this new tempting technology, and no one cared to put a hold on it. This could have been prevented, if only the world would have looked deeper into the dangers of this powerful science of gene editing.
Christiansen, Karin. Genome Editing: Are we opening a back door to eugenics? Science Nordic, 14 Nov. 2017. Accessed 19 Feb. 2022. sciencenordic.com/denmark-ethics-researcher-zone/genome-editing-are-we-opening-a-back-door-to-eugenics/1451075
Gorvett, Zaria. The genetic mistakes that could shape our species. BBC Future, 12 April. 2021. Accessed 19 Feb. 2022. www.bbc.com/future/article/20210412-the-genetic-mistakes-that-could-shape-our-species
Hammerstein, Alix Lenia v., et al. Is selecting better than modifying? An investigation of arguments against germline gene editing as compared to preimplantation genetic diagnosis. Institute of Biomedical Ethics and History of Medicine, 2019. Accessed 19 Feb. 2022. bmcmedethics.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12910-019-0411-9
Kannan, Soumya. Najjar, Devora. “Therapeutic gene editing is here, can regulations keep up?” MIT Science Policy Review 1 (2020): 64-75.
Kozubek, Jim. How Gene Editing Could Ruin Human Evolution. TIME, 9 Jan. 2017. Accessed 19 Feb. 2022. time.com/4626571/crispr-gene-modification-evolution/
Marchione, Marilynn. Lab tests show risks of using CRISPR gene editing on embryos. ABC News, 29 Oct. 2020. Accessed 19 Feb. 2022. abcnews.go.com/Health/wireStory/lab-tests-show-risks-crispr-gene-editing-embryos-73902820
Yong, Ed. The CRISPR Baby Scandal Gets Worse by the Day. The Atlantic, 3 Dec. 2018. Accessed 19 Feb. 2022. www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/12/15-worrying-things-about-crispr-babies-scandal/577234/